by John Dillon
Where Does Morality Come From?
‘But if there’s no god, where does morality come from?’ This question is always pitched at me in that ‘gotcha’ kind of way, as if not having recourse to some kind of spiritual manual will cause me to throw up my arms in horror and declare: ‘Oh, no, I’ve never thought of that one!’ But you see, I have, along with most of my fellow atheists, together with some highly respected thinkers, in fact too many to mention here. In any case, if I did so, I’d only be accused by scripturephiles of citing my own version of a holy book, so I won’t. Instead, I’ll rely on myself, which is a trait among atheists: thinking for ourselves.
So, morality? I won’t overcomplicate the definition. Moral conduct is behaviour that contributes to the well-being of individuals in particular and society in general. No more. No less. Obviously, which acts are considered to be moral are susceptible to the requirements of a society at any given time and should be robustly debated. Such a process necessarily conflicts with the strict moral codes insisted upon by most religions, which is why they have become largely obsolete.
Morality and Society
Admittedly, some aspects of what was considered beneficial for society centuries ago still hold, like not murdering someone on a whim, and stealing stuff is still very much regarded as a reprehensible act. Now, coveting thy neighbour’s donkey, that’s possibly not sooo bad. I’ve done lots of hankering in my time. Anyway, you get the picture. Old precepts of morality still carry some weight, but not all of them and certainly not because they are divinely decreed. The reason for still observing the few is that infringing them causes major disruption to the lives of other human beings you have to rub along with. Even I’m up for that in a non-spiritual way!
The Big Con
And here’s the thing, in the past morality was codified in holy writ for exploitative ends: it provided generally illiterate people with a useful system of rules that benefited their overseers, and secondly, it gave their ‘superiors’ an incentive/disincentive scheme that rewarded their workers in heaven or condemned them to hell, depending on how amenable or obstructive they were; a compliant labour force was a useful one. Good con trick, that! And of course, as is the case with political elites today, it allowed their bosses to behave as badly as they liked because they invented ideas for themselves like buying salvation through building holy places, ironically by exploiting those very same workers. To make matters worse, the most devious of these individuals decided to dispense with morality altogether by inventing slavery, the get-out for which was to reclassify them as subhuman. Sorted! Unfortunately, much of the world is still ruled by theocrats and despotic ideologues using their particularly favoured prescriptive and usually holy texts to command that thou shalt or thou shalt not, and how to do the thou shalts to their advantage!
So, many people across the world are still forced to live in accordance with such archaic principles because they have been indoctrinated from birth by religious ideologies. Would I even call these moral principles when they are imposed rather than consented to? No. One thing is certain, many wish to escape such theocratic conformity to more liberal societies which adopt ethical codes based upon
- robust debate and consensus,
- the wellbeing of the individual,
- and the maintenance of social cohesion.
Liberal democracies certainly do not monopolise the moral high ground but at least their adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights indicates a commitment to finding a way for all of us to live free from the stifling oppression imposed by exploitative theocracies.
So, ‘Where does morality come from?’ It emanates from simple survival advantage. Societies with effective secular moral codes thrive better than those without them. In the past, political elites and religions worked together to prescribe morality for exploitative ends. If we free ourselves of that bondage, we will thrive better.